How "Little Women" Got Big (The New Yorker) 150th Anniversary

Pat Young

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#1
The New Yorker has an interesting article on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Little Women was published in 1868 and this is its Sesquicentennial. It was one of the best-selling novels of the Reconstruction Era. Here is the link:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/08/27/how-little-women-got-big?reload=true

From the article:

It is doubtful whether any novel has been more important to America’s female writers than Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” the story of the four March sisters living in genteel poverty in Massachusetts in the eighteen-sixties.
 

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Pat Young

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From the article:

“Little Women,” published in 1868-69, was a smash hit. Its first part, in an initial printing of two thousand copies, sold out in two weeks. Then, while the publisher rushed to produce more copies of that, he gave Alcott the go-ahead to write a second, concluding part. It, too, was promptly grabbed up. Since then, “Little Women” has never been out of print. Unsurprisingly, it has been most popular with women. “I read ‘Little Women’ a thousand times,” Cynthia Ozick has written. Many others have recorded how much the book meant to them: Nora and Delia Ephron, Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Mary Gordon, Jhumpa Lahiri, Stephenie Meyer. As this list shows, the influence travels from the highbrow to the middlebrow to the lowbrow. And it extends far beyond our shores. Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, and A. S. Byatt have all paid tribute.
 

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A little more from the article:

The book’s fans didn’t merely like it; it gave them a life, they said. Simone de Beauvoir, as a child, used to make up “Little Women” games that she played with her sister. Beauvoir always took the role of Jo. “I was able to tell myself that I too was like her,” she recalled. “I too would be superior and find my place.” Susan Sontag, in an interview, said she would never have become a writer without the example of Jo March. Ursula Le Guin said that Alcott’s Jo, “as close as a sister and as common as grass,” made writing seem like something even a girl could do. Writers also used “Little Women” to turn their characters into writers. In Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend,” the two child heroines have a shared copy of “Little Women” that finally crumbles from overuse. One becomes a famous writer, inspired, in part, by the other’s childhood writing.
 

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On Alcott's father:

Long before she wrote “Little Women,” Alcott (1832-88) swore never to marry, a decision that was no doubt rooted in her observations of her parents’ union. Her father, Bronson Alcott (1795-1888), was an intellectual, or, in any case, a man who had thoughts, a member of New England’s Transcendental Club and a friend of its other members—Emerson, Thoreau. Bronson saw himself as a philosopher, but he is remembered primarily as a pioneer of “progressive education.” He believed in self-expression and fresh air rather than times tables. But the schools and communities that he established quickly failed. His most famous project was Fruitlands, a utopian community that he founded with a friend in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts, in 1843. This was to be a new Eden, one that eschewed the sins that got humankind kicked out of the old one. The communards would till the soil without exploiting animal labor. Needless to say, they ate no animals, but they were vegetarians of a special kind: they ate only vegetables that grew upward, never those, like potatoes, which grew downward. They had no contact with alcohol, or even with milk. (It belonged to the cows.) They took only cold baths, never warm.

Understandably, people did not line up to join Fruitlands. The community folded after seven months. And that stands as a symbol for most of Bronson Alcott’s projects. His ideas were interesting as ideas, but, in action, they came to little.
 

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On Alcott and marriage:

Alcott never swerved in her decision not to marry. “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe,” as she put it. And yet she concluded the first volume of “Little Women” with a betrothal. Meg is proposed to by Laurie’s tutor, John Brook, a good man, and she accepts. Jo, who takes the same position as her creator on the subject of marriage—never!—is scandalized. How could Meg have done such a stupid and heartless thing, and created a breach in the March household? “I just wish I could marry Meg myself, and keep her safe in the family,” she says. The first volume ends with the family adjourning to the parlor, where they all sit and gaze sentimentally at the newly promised couple—all of them, that is, except Jo, who is thinking that maybe something will go wrong and they’ll break up. Now the curtain falls on the March girls, Alcott writes: “Whether it ever rises again, depends upon the reception given the first act of the domestic drama called Little Women.”

This sounds, now, as though she is teasing her readers, knowing full well that she will shortly receive huge bags of mail demanding that she get going on Part 2. In any case, that’s what happened, and the letter writers wanted to know one thing above all: Whom did the girls marry? Meg is taken, but what about Amy and Beth? Most important, what about Jo? Clearly, Jo had to marry Laurie. Everyone was crazy about her, so she had to be given the best, and wasn’t Laurie the best? He was handsome; he was rich; he spoke French; he loved her. In the final scene of Part 1, as everyone is cooing over Meg and John, Laurie, leaning over Jo’s chair, “smiled with his friendliest aspect, and nodded at her in the long glass which reflected them both.” They’re next, obviously.
 
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Pat Young

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Another selection from the article:

It is hard to like Bronson, because he took so little care of his family. For a long time, Louisa appears to have despised him, or at least regarded him with considerable irony. She once wrote to him that her goal in her work was to prove that “though an Alcott I can support myself.” It would be hard to find an English-language work of fiction more autobiographical than “Little Women.” For almost every person in Louisa’s immediate family, there is a corresponding character, an important one, in this book. The one exception is Bronson. Father March comes home from the war, stumbles into the back room, and thereafter mostly stays offstage, reading books. Occasionally, he wanders in and says something or other. Then he wanders back out. In one sense, we could say that Louisa erased him—a sort of revenge, perhaps. In another sense, this may just be an erasure of her feelings about him: she didn’t want to talk about it.

Yet, while Bronson was more or less written out of the book, the ideals to which he held so stubbornly inform every page. Bronson’s obsession was with the transcendence of the material world, with seeing through appearances to a moral and spiritual truth. He took this passion to extremes, and that is what made him eccentric, not to speak of irresponsible. But that is also the cast of mind that, with the addition of common sense and humor and an attachment to regular things—life, family, dinner—makes Alcott’s most admirable characters admirable.
 

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Someone told me about this book recently, and your thread prompted me to look it up on Wikipedia:

March (2005) is a novel by Geraldine Brooks. It is a novel that retells Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women from the point of view of Alcott's protagonists' absent father. Brooks has inserted the novel into the classic tale, revealing the events surrounding March's absence during the American Civil War in 1862. The novel won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Plot summary
In 1862, Mr. March, an abolitionist and chaplain in the Union Army, is driven by his conscience to leave his home and family in Concord, Massachusetts, to participate in the war. During this time, March writes letters to his family, but he withholds the true extent of the brutality and injustices he witnesses on and off the battlefields. He suffers from a prolonged illness stemming from poor conditions on a cotton farm in Virginia. While in hospital, he has an unexpected meeting with Grace, an intelligent and literate black nurse whom he first met as a young woman staying in a large house where she was a slave. The recovering March, despite his guilt and grief over his survival when others have perished, returns home to his wife and Little Women, but he has been scarred by the events he has gone through. The novel accurately reflects Bronson Alcott's principles, notably his belief that boys and girls of all races had a right to education and his wish to follow a vegetarian diet. It presents the young Mrs March as a fiery character with strong verbal and physical expressions of anger.

The character of March is based in part on Alcott's father, Amos Bronson Alcott, who was a teacher and abolitionist. Brooks used as source materials Mr. Alcott's letters and journals, and the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who were friends of the Alcott family. Thoreau and Emerson also appear in the novel as secondary characters and friends of the Marches.

I had never heard of it, and it could provide an interesting counter-perspective.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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For someone who gave us so much joy in family, hers had an awful lot of tragedy. They'd lost Elizabeth before the war, mother, 1877, sister Anna's husband died leaving her with 2 small children, then Abigail died leaving her 6 week old baby to be raised by Louisa. Poor child, must have been only 9 or so when Louisa and Bronson died within two days of each other, 1888. Anna was only 10 years later, I think?

Sorry, hate to so dreary. It's always seemed so dreadful, for writer who gave us so much enjoyment
 

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Someone told me about this book recently, and your thread prompted me to look it up on Wikipedia:

March (2005) is a novel by Geraldine Brooks. It is a novel that retells Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women from the point of view of Alcott's protagonists' absent father. Brooks has inserted the novel into the classic tale, revealing the events surrounding March's absence during the American Civil War in 1862. The novel won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Plot summary
In 1862, Mr. March, an abolitionist and chaplain in the Union Army, is driven by his conscience to leave his home and family in Concord, Massachusetts, to participate in the war. During this time, March writes letters to his family, but he withholds the true extent of the brutality and injustices he witnesses on and off the battlefields. He suffers from a prolonged illness stemming from poor conditions on a cotton farm in Virginia. While in hospital, he has an unexpected meeting with Grace, an intelligent and literate black nurse whom he first met as a young woman staying in a large house where she was a slave. The recovering March, despite his guilt and grief over his survival when others have perished, returns home to his wife and Little Women, but he has been scarred by the events he has gone through. The novel accurately reflects Bronson Alcott's principles, notably his belief that boys and girls of all races had a right to education and his wish to follow a vegetarian diet. It presents the young Mrs March as a fiery character with strong verbal and physical expressions of anger.

The character of March is based in part on Alcott's father, Amos Bronson Alcott, who was a teacher and abolitionist. Brooks used as source materials Mr. Alcott's letters and journals, and the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who were friends of the Alcott family. Thoreau and Emerson also appear in the novel as secondary characters and friends of the Marches.

I had never heard of it, and it could provide an interesting counter-perspective.
It is a very interesting book, which is well worth reading.
 

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I think that the appeal of Little Women, especially in the Victorian era, was that many women wanted to BE Jo, but were afraid of or unable to make the break from convention. She did not want a husband as a validation of her existence, but rather as a complement to her life. She wanted a career and independence. Jo became a role model for women who were looking for a different place in society, a pioneer in the struggle for women to be seen as persons in their own right, not as chattels of their fathers and husbands.
 



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